Film Reviews

Samurai Reincarnation (1981) – Blu-ray Review

Kinji Fukasaku is a name that may be familiar to fans of Japanese cinema, with the director having racked up a number of hits in the yakuza crime genre such as Graveyards of Honor and Yakuza Graveyard, though he might be best known for the astonishingly popular action thriller Battle Royale.

And whilst Fukasaku is clearly well versed at crafting gritty modern day movies packed with violence, he also turned his hand to historical fantasy with Samurai Reincarnation in 1981, which like Battle Royale saw him adapting a book to the big screen.

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Samurai Reincarnation tells the story of a Christian rebellion in Japan, an uprising that was brutally destroyed, loosely based on the real-life Shimabara Rebellion of 1637 which saw 37,000 rebels beheaded. This is where the film begins, in a field of the dead, with heads jammed onto spikes, and some cut in half to make it look like more people were killed. The spirit of one of the dead, the warrior Shirō Amakusa (Kenji Sawada), denounces God for allowing the slaughter of his followers, and instead pledges his soul to Satan, promising to bring evil to the land if he’s allowed new life in pursuit of revenge. Thus, Shirō returns to the land of the living as a demonic revenant, and sets out to recruit others to his cause.

The first half of Samurai Reincarnation follows Shirō as he travels from place to place, recruiting the dead and dying to his cause. He seeks out Gracia Hosokawa (Akiko Kana) the wife of a samurai betrayed and killed by her husband, Musashi Miyamoto (Ken Ogata), the aged warrior desperate for youth so that he can keep fighting, and a murdered rapist looking to cause more terror. Those that he recruits make for an interesting mix, as some come across as lost souls led down a path of darkness and corruption that they would never normally choose, whilst others are gleeful in the pain they cause in life. This part of the film is perhaps the oddest, and the least well paced, as we spend a good deal of time with each of these recruits and get their backstories as Shirō  makes them his offer.

The second half of the film focuses on Jūbei Yagyū (Sonny Chiba), the son of the rival of Musashi Miyamoto, an eye-patch-wearing warrior who keeps encountering the demonic warriors, and whose friend has been seduced by them. With Musashi Miyamoto determined to come after his father, and with the demon warriors spreading terror across the land, Jūbei seeks out the legendary swordsmith Muramasa (Tetsuro Tamba), who can forge a blade that can kill even demons.

Thanks to the first half of the movie unfolding in a way that feels more like an anthology of connected stories than a single cohesive narrative, the latter half of the film changing its style feels like something of a shock. The change from multiple stories to a single narrative, and the shift from following the villains to focusing on the hero of the piece does end up making the movie feel slightly odd, almost like it’s two different projects pasted together. Having never read the novel that the film is based upon, I can’t say if this pacing is due to the structure of the book, and if author Futaro Yamada structured the original story this way. Having both watched Battle Royale and read the book, Fukasaku did seem to take pains to keep a similar structure there, so it’s not impossible that this is the reason for the odd structure here.

That being said, the latter half of the film is easily the best, and Chiba is great in the role of Jūbei Yagyū, a character based upon one of the most famous samurai in Japan’s history. It’s possible that folks watching Samurai Reincarnation for the first time will be familiar with the character of Jūbei Yagyū, thanks to him being used in a dozens of stories over the years ranging from film and TV, to comics and video games. Chiba himself would play Jūbei Yagyū across four feature films, a television movie, and 91 episodes of TV. But, he isn’t the only character here to appear in other stories, with both Miyamoto Musashi and Muramasa being figures that have lived on across the centuries in folk tales, and in film, TV, and other media in the modern age. Thanks to the use of familiar names Samurai Reincarnation does feel somewhat more accessible, which helps when dealing with the opening half of the movie which does test the audience’s endurance to stick with it.

Samurai Reincarnation is a pretty dark film, and this is reflected in the violence of the action scenes. The film has some great set pieces, and the fight choreography tries to straddle the line between the impossible and realism. There are some moments that feel fantastical, largely due to the demonic combatants, yet it still oddly feels entrenched in the real world too. It manages to ground the supernatural elements in a way that feels effortless, and results in a film that often pushes the line between what’s expected and the shocking, which feels very much like Kinji Fukasaku.

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The new release from Eureka Entertainment offers a new restoration of the movie in high definition, and the film looks great thanks to this, with some absolutely gorgeous visuals. The film comes in both the original Japanese audio, and with the option for an English dub, alongside a full length audio commentary from Tom Mes, an expert on Japanese cinema. There’s also a long interview with filmmaker Kenta Fukasaku, the son of director Kinji Fukasaku, that’s full of interesting information about both this film and Kinji Fukasaku’s career.

Samurai Reincarnation is not one of the easier films of Kinji Fukasaku that I’ve watched. Whilst technically well crafted and interesting it does take a long time for the film to really grab you, and the odd pacing in the first half does end up leading to a film that feels very hard to connect with. For those that stick through the rocky beginning however, there’s a solid supernatural samurai movie to be found here.

Samurai Reincarnation is out now on Blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment

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